MARK | PART 7: JUSTICE AND MERCY
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Heb 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Sometimes we use words too quickly; a meaning registers, and we move on. When we hear the phrase, slaves to sin, what does the word slaves mean to us? We probably think of the white colonial trade in African blacks that is the inescapable atrocity in this country’s history. Maybe we watched, back in the day, the television broadcast of Alex Haley’s Roots. We all will have images of the brutality of slavery, and most of us will find these abhorrent. We know that slavery was once widespread across the world, that blacks enslaved blacks, whites enslaved whites, Native Americans enslaved Native Americans. We also know that slavery, with all of its brutality, continues to this day. The sex trade in parts of the world is based on the slavery of children. Slaves are kept to make money or to do the work that their masters don’t want to do. Slaves make leisure possible. Poor people, people who are economically disadvantaged, often are treated as slaves. In Ancient Palestine, slaves were the spoils of war; enemies, when caught, became slaves. Where war was common, slaves were common. The chosen people of Israel used slaves in building projects, in their temple and their households. Slaves were treated as property, as woman and children and poor relations might be treated.
The reality of slavery, its literal sense, one human being owning and holding the power of life and death over another human being, violates the Kingdom morality Jesus is teaching his disciples. James and John want the seats of honor in the glory of Jesus, but we are not to be ranked in the Kingdom; there is to be no master and no slave, and for the present, we are to serve the least among us. We are to practice humility, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and ‘to give his life as a ransom for ‘many’” (Mk 10:45).
The resemblance between the first chapter of Mark and the first chapter of Genesis suggests how we might understand this verse. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning when god created the heavens and the earth,” and Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Genesis account is about the beginning of God’s creation of the universe, and Mark’s account is about the beginning of God’s new creation, which is his Kingdom.
In the Genesis account, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Here work means “to cultivate,” a delightful but not idle labor. Food was to be taken with restraint; the Garden kept fruitful. “To work and keep” means to sustainably cultivate what one possesses. There was no animal husbandry, no tilling of the earth; the Garden of Eden was a safe place for life, because the Garden was placed in the presence of the Lord, as a place to worship and obey: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You many surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
I find it ironic that Christianity is sometimes regarded as just another expression of universal moral truths. It is not. One particular kind of knowledge is fatal. There are 66 books in the Bible, and very early on in the very first book we are told, trying to know what is good and evil will kill you. That’s not a judgment a human being, from its limited perspective, can make. And see what happened; we gave it a go, and it killed us. During the time that elapses between the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of the Mark’s Gospel, animals, crops, and people die. Sin and death rule the world, because we presumed to know good and evil.
What then did it mean, to be a slave to sin? In the Genesis account, sin is the breaking of God’s one commandment. Sin and death enter the world because of what we do, not what God does. During the thousands of years that sin and death could not be vanquished, the commandments grew tenfold and became increasingly impossible to keep. No one can put God and neighbor above the self. The knowledge of good and evil is always related to the self.
We can’t talk about heavenly things without using the vocabulary of worldly things. Spiritual warfare, for instance: the battle between good and evil. As we said earlier, where war was common, slaves were common. When we are captured by sin, we become slaves of sin. And sin doesn’t have any early release policies: once a slave, always a slave.
The disciples thought the Messiah would save Israel from Rome, but Jesus said not Rome, sin, a greater slavery than Rome’s. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[i] For the sting of death is sin…
John Chrysostom enumerates the accomplishment of the lowliness of Jesus: 1) He erased the curse God spoke in the Garden, when God took away from us the fruit of the Tree of Life: 2) He opened “wide the vaults of the sky, and he lifted our first fruits to heaven. 3) He struck down sin, and filled the whole world with godliness. 4) He drove out error, he led back truth, he made our firstfruits – that is, the first human beings to have eternal life – mount to the royal throne. Chrysostom says, “He accomplished so many good things that neither I nor all humanity together could set them before your minds in words.”[ii]
The price paid to free a slave is called the ransom. The ransom goes to the slave owner. So here’s the catch: Our God is a sovereign God, so the ransom goes to God, “not with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited,” but with “blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19). Jesus pays our ransom for us because we’re slaves and slaves don’t get paid; slaves can’t make their payments.
The messianic rule of God is inaugurated by the lowliness of service: Jesus, whose death on the cross, because his life was sinless, is counted worthy, in God’s court of judgment, to pay with his blood the penalty we owe for our sins. Jesus, we say, atones for our sins.
Everyone wants their sins to be forgiven, but few want or are capable of forgiving those who violate them. Everyone wants justice for others, but not for his or herself. If someone hurts or robs us, and we see them arrested, convicted, and sentenced, we call this closure. If criminals take the life of a person close to us, we ask for blood: a life for a life. How can a just God show mercy without first requiring that wrongs be made right and justice served?
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes: “When we were dead in our transgressions, God made us alive again, having forgiven us our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). From the moment we disobeyed the one commandment in the Garden, until the crucifixion of Jesus, the entire human race was enslaved to sin and no one was forgiven. And from the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, as Paul writes to the Romans, “our body of sin was done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). Now we can say, with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). Therefore, we should glorify God in our body (1 Cor 6:20); We were slaves to sin, but now we’re free.
The suffering of the servant Jesus, moved by his great love for us, makes our life and its freedom possible. The Gospel announces and celebrates our new life in the resurrected Christ. This is why we can be confident in God’s care. We live in God’s community, the heavenly kingdom of his people, and that is where, at this very moment, we gather together, in hopeful expectation of the future coming again in glory.
The walk we are making with Jesus, who is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified, leads first to death and then to life: our daily life. Sometimes we forget that Jesus already set us free from our personal sin, the darkest secrets of our hearts, two thousand years before we were born. When we sin, when we make the mistakes that we make, we can trust God to help us and to comfort us. He will forgive us, has already forgiven us, and he will give us the strength to fight off our weakness and change our ways, because he loves us. We are his beloved, and he will never abandon us. His Spirit at this very moment is alive within us. Let us give thanks and praise. Amen.
[i] 1 Cor 15:55
[ii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Mark (NT Vol 2)